Sermon: Sunday, May 10, 2015: Sixth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 10:44-48  +  Psalm 98  +  1 John 5:1-6  +  John 15:9-17


In the name of Jesus, Amen. (6 words)

About eight years ago a book was published titled Not Quite What I Was Planning. It was a collection of six-word memoirs by people both famous and unknown. Some were amusing, like Stephen Colbert’s which read, “Well, I thought it was funny.” Some were poignant, like the recently dumped young adult who wrote, “I still make coffee for two.”  Some were wise, like the anonymous person who scrawled on a bathroom wall, “Love me or leave me alone.”

Given that today is Mother’s Day, and there are always people in room who are still looking for a way to make the day special for their mothers, I thought I might do you a favor and give you the chance to come up with something more personal than the endearments printed inside the cards found at the pharmacy.  I’m going to give you a minute to come up with a six-word tribute to someone who has been a mother to you — could be your mother or grandmother, an aunt or a neighbor, a teacher or a friend who adopted you, you are the best judge of who has been a mother to you — and then I’m going to ask a few of you to share what you’ve come up with (so I’m counting on you to not leave me hanging here). I can give you a few examples, to help get the juices flowing. My mother in six words:

  • Loves us fiercely as a tiger.
  • Don’t be fooled, made of steel. 
  • Overcoming fear, she made us strong.

You get the idea. Take a minute now and see what you can come up with.

(Members of the assembly are invited to share their six-word tributes with each other and then with the whole congregation)

Doesn’t that feel good? Doesn’t it feel good to remember the people who have stepped into our lives, whether at birth or some later date, to provide the mothering that we needed? Despite the complex emotional responses that many of us have to days like today, days like Mother’s Day — which can too easily reduce motherhood to sentimentality, or obscure the difficult relationships between mothers and children, or silence the experiences of those whose longing to be mothers has not been fulfilled — despite those very real, legitimate experiences, I hope there still some pleasure to be found in taking the time to testify to the gifts of mothering we have received.

The scriptures appointed for this morning have something to say about parents and children as well, something that takes the words we carefully craft to pay tribute to our mothers and requires us to put flesh on those bones.  The author of First John declares, “everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.” (1 John 5:1) The writer is talking to us, to people gathered around baptismal waters, people who understood that to take the name Christian meant to receive the spirit of adoption that washes away the labels the world uses to divide us and to become members of one human family with one common parent, the mothering God who gave us birth.

“Everyone who loves the parent loves the child.”

I wonder, if I asked you to write a six-word memoir for your siblings how those would turn out.  I’m not going to do it, so relax, but still I wonder. Or, if there was some way we could collect six-word memoirs from your sisters and brothers, what might they say? I’m not speaking metaphorically here, not talking about your “sisters and brothers in Christ,” but of the actual people with whom you shared a bathroom or a bunk bed, the people who edged you out in conversations around the dinner table, or who read your diary, or who looked up to you like heroes. The people you share care-taking responsibility for your parents with, or you don’t. How are you doing with them?

Kerry and I have been enjoying wonderful conversations with the pastor who will be marrying us at the end of June, and in one of our recent meetings he was talking about how the place where we really learn the Christian disciplines of confession, forgiveness, peace-making, reconciliation, self-giving and sacrifice isn’t out in the world with some abstract “other,” but in our homes with our spouses, our children, our parents, our siblings, our selves even. “Everyone who loves the parent loves the child” starts with you. That tenderness in your voice when you spoke of your mother, can you be that tender with yourself? That admiration in your eyes when you read your six words, can you offer that to your sister? That peace you found with the parent who tried her best, can you make that with your partner? If you want to pay tribute to your mother, attend to the people your mother loves. “Everyone who loves the parent loves the child.”

Then, afterwards, there is the move from the concrete to the abstract. From the sister we know to the brother we have never met.

I went to seminary fifteen years ago in the South in Atlanta, a city defined by its most famous son, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his leadership in the struggle for racial justice and civil rights. Still, forty years after his assassination, we were struggling with racism and not in the abstract, but in our own community of Christian people preparing for public ministry in the church. I remember a White classmate of mine standing up in a town hall forum asking why we were still defining each other by race when we were all sisters and brothers in Christ. Didn’t we know that in Christ there is “no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Col. 3:11)

As I listened to him speak I remembered my own sister — adopted, Asian, brown-skinned — being bullied at summer camp by a group of White girls who wouldn’t let her get in the swimming pool, who told her that her skin wasn’t clean, that it would make the water dirty. She didn’t need someone to tell her that she was making a big deal out of nothing. She needed her family to listen and to believe her, to hold her while she wept, and to call to accountability the people who were supposed to keep that community safe for her.

The passage we hear from Acts is lifted out of one of my favorite stories in all of scripture. The apostle Peter, a devout Jew and a follower of Jesus, receives a vision in which he sees something like a large sheet being lowered from the heavens, and in that sheet were all sorts of creatures he wasn’t supposed to eat. Then he hears a voice telling him to get up and eat, and he refuses, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But the voice responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:15) Later, as Peter comes to the home of Cornelius, he remembers this vision and sets aside laws and customs in order to enter that man’s home. There, as Peter shares the story of God’s love as it was revealed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit fills the room and everyone in it, and Peter recognizes that in the face of God’s impartial love for all God’s children, the laws governing human relations needed to change, and he baptizes the entire household with a ritual that had previously been reserved for insiders only.

Everyone who loves the parent loves the child.

Mother’s Day, as most of us know, wasn’t founded by grateful children. It was established by women who were tired of death. By mothers on both sides of the Civil War mourning the loss of their sons. They weren’t asking for cards or candy, they were asking for a world in which their children would live to bear children of their own. For a future better than their past. These mothers weren’t looking for appreciation, they were fighting for their children’s lives.

BLMThat hasn’t changed. Women are still fighting for their children’s lives, here in Chicago, in Baltimore, in Israel and Palestine, in Afghanistan and Iraq. On this morning when children across the country are handing their mothers home-made cards with handcrafted messages, I wonder which six words these mothers are most longing to hear. Might it be

  • I am listening. I believe you.
  • Your child’s life matters to me.
  • Tell me how I can help.
  • We are all in this together.

And I wonder how that Mother’s Day card gets delivered.

Everyone who loves the parent loves the child.



Sermon: Sunday, May 13, 2012 — Sixth Sunday of Easter / Mother’s Day

Texts:  Acts 10:44-48  •   Psalm 98  •  1 John 5:1-6  •   John 15:9-17

The year was 1868, just three years after the end of the American Civil War.  The nation was still recovering from the deadliest war in our history, when measured by the number of Americans killed.  An estimated three-quarters of a million soldiers lost their lives, and another four hundred thousand were wounded.  Ten percent of young men in the Union states, and thirty percent of young men in the Confederate states lost their lives.  A generation had just been lost.

It was 1868 when a woman by the name of Ann Jarvis established a committee for the purposes of observing a “Mother’s Friendship Day” as a method of reuniting families that had been torn apart by the war.  It was the first modern attempt at establishing a day for mothers in the United States, and it was a direct outgrowth of our nation’s experience of war.  It was a recognition that, while war may divide us, a parent’s grief over the loss of a child is universal.

The movement to establish an annual Mother’s Day observance stumbled along in the years following 1868.  Four year later, Julia Ward Howe led a “Mother’s Day” anti-war demonstration in New York City.  If her name sounds familiar to you, it’s probably that you recognize her as the author of the familiar lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which she’d written over a decade before, near the start of the Civil War.  Having lived through the war between the states, Julia Ward Howe was singing a different tune by 1872, when she delivered her famous “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” which is now included in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal.  Hear today that famous Mother’s Day address.  Julia Ward Howe writes,

Arise, then, women of this day!  Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly, “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies; our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.  As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

Imagine that.  The origins of the holiday we observe this morning, so often reduced to chocolates and carnations, in reality rooted in powerful organizing by women (not for women) to promote a peaceful resolution to global conflicts, and understanding between people of different nationalities.

You can hear Julia Ward Howe’s faith all throughout her Mother’s Day proclamation.  She speaks of baptism by water or by tears, recalling for us that through baptism Jesus joined all of humanity in solidarity with our sufferings, and by baptism we are joined to the humanity of people of every nationality, on every side of every war.  She called for a global conversation at which every party might notice that they are made in the image and likeness of God, not of Caesar.  She pleads for us to find in our faith an allegiance to a power higher than nation or state.

It is as if she has been reading the epistle assigned for this morning, First John, the fifth chapter.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

Written during a time filled with real Caesars, not metaphoric ones, the author of First John is making not only a bold statement of faith — but a bold testimony about where Christians place our faith. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God…”  To call Jesus the Christ is to say that we believe that Jesus is God’s anointed one, the one chosen by God to inaugurate God’s reign, here and now.  In a time when Rome’s Caesar claimed the title, “Son of God,” the early Christians not only said that it was Jesus who was God’s truly beloved child, but that everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.

Let that sink in.  This religious language is so familiar, so worn after two thousand years of use, that it’s really difficult for us to hear it for the radically political speech that it is.  The author of First John, writing to the early church and preaching to us this morning as well, is saying that we who have met God in Jesus are in every way as empowered as any Caesar, as any national, militaristic, conquering power.  In gently disarming language this scripture tells us, “who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Again, let that sink in.  On the eve of a global gathering of the world’s military powers here in Chicago, Illinois, United States of America — scriptures tell us that it is we who carry the name of Christ, we  who are called Christians, who believe that Jesus is the messiah, the beloved child of God, who will conquer the world.

This message is so radically subversive, so blatantly seditious, that it is no wonder the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity early in the 4th century.  As they say, if you can’t beat them, join them… and the empire had been trying , unsuccessfully, to beat the Christian witness down with a century of martyrs, but to no avail.

It is ironic that, while we were enemies of the empire — because we refused to acknowledge the Roman emperor as the Son of God, our witness for peace was strong and clear.  It is tragic that, once we were accepted by the powers of empire our witness became much less clear.  This is not uncommon though, is it?  We might expect those who have endured great persecutions to be more inclined to work for the peace, liberation, and safety of others, but that is not always the case.  Those who came to this country as immigrants have not always worked for the rights of those who followed.  Those who fought for the guarantee of civil rights have not always continued that work to protect those who remain outside those protections.  Christians, who refused to acknowledge Caesar as God’s Son and were willing to pay for their faith with their lives have become ambivalent about worldly power since being adopted by the emperor, forgetting that we were first adopted by God when we were bathed in these waters.

Earlier in this passage from First John, as we heard last week, the author writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”  The letter continued this week with the admonition, “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world.” And then in John’s gospel we hear the content of this commandment we are called to keep, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Christians, called to be God’s conquerors, you are called to conquer this world in the only way God is interested in conquering anything — with love.  It is as the bumper sticker says, “when Jesus said ‘Love your Enemies,’ I’m pretty sure he meant ‘Don’t Kill Them.’”  Or, expanding upon Cornell West’s newly minted proverb, “Justice is what Love looks like in public,” we might  say, “Peace is what love looks like in public.”

And this, finally, brings us to the moment we are living in.  As we look around the walls of our sanctuary and see these powerful images from the “Windows and Mirrors: Reflections on the War in Afghanistan” exhibit, a project of the American Friends Service Committee — which is a Quaker organization working out of a belief in the sacred worth of every person, and faith in the power of love to overcome violence and injustice — we are struck by how unlike the sweet images we typically find on the cards in the Mother’s Day section of the greeting card rack they are.  But, my dear friends, these images are so much more like the kind of Mother’s Day that was originally intended, because they show us the reality of war — that mothers and daughters and fathers and sons on every side of every conflict lose everything when their children, both soldiers and civilians, are killed.

Ann Jarvis, the original founder of the modern Mother’s Day movement, worked throughout the Civil War to organize women to care for the wounded on both sides of the conflict.  She refused to limit her care for only “her own” because, as a mother, she knew that all children are “ours.”  In her called for a Mother’s Day she, like Julia Ward Howe, emphasized the causes of pacifism and social action.  She died in 1905, her vision of this kind of Mother’s Day still unrealized.  Two years after her death Ann’s daughter, Anna Marie Jarvis, took up her mother’s cause and began organizing to make “Mother’s Day” a nationally recognized holiday.  Seven years later, in 1914, her dream was realized, and the United States recognized the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day, and so this day our country observes the 98th anniversary of that first federally acknowledged event.

However, less than a decade later, Anna Jarvis and her sister, Ellsinore, were being arrested for disturbing the peace.  They had returned to public demonstrations against what Mother’s Day had become, a sentimental, commercial holiday celebrating mothers instead of the powerful movement of mother’s for peace that their own mother had worked so hard for her whole life long.

As the nations prepare to assembly here in Chicago over the coming weeks for the NATO summit, proposing to solve by war and military power what we as Christians have been called to answer by love, listen again to the closing words of Julia Ward Howe’s original Mother’s Day Proclamation,

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

My dear sisters and brothers by baptism, that is what is happening here in our hometown in the coming weeks.  Forget what you’ve heard on the television and over the radio.  The people who are organizing rallies and teach ins downtown and across the city are not seeking to answer NATO’s militarism with violence, but with love for one another — across nationalities.  They are seeking “the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”

I intend to be with them.  I’ll be spending tomorrow evening training to be a peace chaplain at the upcoming NATO demonstrations.  That is how I will make my Christian witness for peace.  We will be gathering for worship next Sunday in Palmer Square, along with members of First Lutheran Church, Humboldt Park United Methodist Church and Kimball Avenue Church to make our collective Christian witness for peace, and at that service we will be commissioning and blessing those among us who are finding ways to give their own Christian testimony and witness for the cause of peace.

On this Mother’s Day, I beg you to consider not only your own mothers, but all the mothers of the world — those whose children are safely at home, those whose children are caught up in the gears of war, and those whose children will never again sit at the family dinner table but who will only be seen when we are all gathered around the great dinner table of God.  Consider the cause of mothers, and fathers, sisters and brothers, and decide what your witness for peace will be.

In the name of our mothering God.